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Acta Politica, 2005, 40, (384392)

r 2005 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 0001-6810/05 $30.00

Concluding Comments on Empirical Approaches

to Deliberative Politics
Jurgen Habermas
Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Senckenberganlage 31, Frankfurt am Main 60325, Germany.

Acta Politica (2005) 40, 384392. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ap.5500119

I am grateful for the privilege to add some thoughts on the contributions to this
volume (although I was not able to participate in the actual conference). Far
from being capable of writing a kind of review, my comments only resonate
some reactions to the inspiring reading of papers from a field of research I am
not familiar with.
It will not come as a surprise that I am most satisfied with the
operationalization of online Deliberation that D. Janssen and R. Kies extract
from Lincoln Dahlbergs research (2002). One set of criteria for measuring the
quality of discourse refers to structural features: the reciprocity of raising and
responding to validity claims; the connection of this exchange with justifying
reasons; the direct or indirect inclusion of all those affected; and the absence of
interfering pressures with the exception of the forceless force of the better
argument. The remaining three criteria concern required dispositions of
participants: a reflexive attitude towards ones own claims and background
assumptions; ideal role taking or willingness to take the demands and
counterarguments of the others seriously; and sincerity or the absence of
manipulation and self-deception.
At first glance, it might appear puzzling that a list of criteria for evaluating
internet discussions should fit best to my own description and presuppositional
analysis of practical discourse (Habermas, 1983, 93119; 1991, 15266; 1996a,
5664). However, issue-oriented chat rooms provide the researcher with selfdefined, weakly institutionalized, spontaneous and rather isolated discourse
units, which can be analysed apart from any larger political context. These
abstract units invite an empirical analysis of how informal yet focused
deliberations deviate from the model of rational discourse. Experimental
groups, such as S. Fishkins focus groups for deliberative polling, provide
another approach to discourse analysis. The conception of rational discourse
serves as standard for an evaluation of the cognitive potential of actual
communications, in the first case, and as design for the construction of
cognitively enhanced communications in the second case.1

Jurgen Habermas
Some Comments


These examples might suggest that rational discourse is a kind of

philosophical ideal belonging to what Rawls calls ideal theory. This is not
how I understand the term. The conception of rational discourse results from
the reconstruction of an actual practice and captures just those pragmatic
features of a communicative setting that anybody tacitly presupposes once he
seriously enters an argumentation in order to check a problematic validity
claim by either supporting or denying the truth or rightness of some statement
with reasons pro and con. This rather demanding practice of giving and taking
reasons (Brandom, 1994) is rooted in, and emerging from, the everyday
contexts of communicative action. The idealizing presuppositions of inclusiveness, equal communicative rights, sincerity and freedom of repression and
manipulation are part of the intuitive knowledge of how to argue. Far from
being an imposition of philosophical ideas from the outside, they form an
intrinsic dimension of this practice.
With this description I do not imply, of course, that we can use arguments
only in the context of a discourse that properly serves the purpose of proving
and redeeming validity claims. Nor do I maintain that we ever actually meet
those ideal conditions we cannot but presupposing when we engage in rational
discourse. Yet, these presuppositions are constitutive of the game of
argumentation: the very moment we discover that somebody cheats and
manipulates or excludes relevant persons or contributions, we realize that the
game is over. This is to remind us of the reconstructive character of any
empirical research that is guided by discourse theory as I understand it. The
intuitive knowledge that participants connect with their performance may not
match the observable facts while yet being constitutive of that same practice.
Take the practice of general voting as an example. It depends on a voluntary
participation of a large part of the citizens. Any democratic regime is finished
without that. However, would citizens participate at all unless they
presupposed, contrasting evidence notwithstanding, that ones own vote does
make a difference in the effective outcome?2 Would citizens bring to court any
legal case unless they presupposed, contrary to the beliefs of many lawyers and
law professors, that outcomes more often than not qualify for the kind of fair
administration of justice they expect?3 Would members of a parliamentary
committee or a caucus engage again and again in discussions on normatively
loaded issues (such as stem cell research) unless they presupposed that they can
win over people by better arguments?
Research in constitutive presuppositions is part of conceptual analysis, a
proper job for philosophers. However, such a philosophical analysis assumes
more and more features of an empirical research, the more we depart from the
level of generalized cognitive and linguistic practices and approach presuppositions of institutionalized and more or less conventional practices. In a few
cases, philosophical reconstructions of basic competences have been used for
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the construction of empirical theories. Genetic epistemology is a case in point

(although Piaget did almost all the philosophical work by himself). In a similar
vein, Robert E. Goodin suggests to develop the conception of deliberation
from the famous conversation postulates of Paul Grice (1975, 2001). I myself
prefer a stronger conception of rational discourse for explaining an epistemic
notion of deliberative politics.
Even if that conception serves a proper role in a theory of truth or in moral
theory4, it is not at all obvious that politics lends itself for discourse theory as a
proper domain of application. We should keep in mind the reason why
normative political theory has bought into an epistemic notion of deliberative
politics: it is for solving the problem of legitimation that the secular state faces
in view of the fact of pluralism. Once the acceptance of binding political
decisions can no longer be based on justifications derived from a substantive
world view that is, or can be expected to be, shared by all citizens, the burden
of legitimation finally falls only on what we may expect from the democratic
In the legitimation base of the constitutional state, there is certainly a
circular relationship between democracy and human rights. However, as soon
as metaphysical and religious arguments do no longer count in public, human
rights cannot on behalf of natural law claim validity independently of
any democratic authorization. The law of law giving is up for democratic
legitimation, too. Democratically generated laws would, on the other hand,
remain deficient as well, if they were following the doctrines of legal
positivism or legal realism nothing but the expression of an arbitrary or
unbound will of the people. A legitimating authority can only spring from a
democratic process that grounds a reasonable presumption for the rational
acceptability of outcomes. And this will be only the case if there is a cognitive
dimension built into it the decisions of the democratic law giver must remain
internally linked to preceding deliberations. And here is the entry for a
discourse theory that claims to explain how the institutionalization of
deliberative politics can generate a postmetaphysical and postreligious kind
of legitimacy within a pluralist civil society.5 From this perspective, I am happy
to see how many contributions to this volume actually highlight three
important aspects of such a theory as follows:
(1) In dealing with the transnational arena of politics, the papers of Part V
explain in different ways the relevance of a legal institutionalization of political
deliberation. At this level, deliberation, as a mechanism of problem solving and
conflict resolution, is still underinstitutionalized. What in German international law has been called the constitutionalization of international relations
is obviously a long-ranging, vulnerable and still open-ended process that did
not start until the foundation of the United Nations. In view of such uncertain
prospects, it is interesting to analyse the role of arguing and bargaining in
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multilateral negotiations. Focusing on several case studies on multilateral

negotiations undertaken in a common project jointly led with Harald Muller,
Thomas Risse and Cornelia Ulbert confirm the assumption that a stronger
impact of deliberations on outcomes depends on a dense framework of
previously agreed-upon principles, norms and rules. At the national level such
as common background is granted by the frame of a democratic constitution.
Compared with those more or less well-institutionalized legitimation processes
within democratic nation states, there is a lack of coupling between, on one
side, the decision-making processes in international organizations such as the
United Nations, the World Trade Organization or the World Bank and, on the
other side, any organized opinion and will formation among citizens affected
by those decisions beyond the nation state. This is the reason why Patricia
Nanz and Jens Steffek choose these organizations for a critical assessment of
the insufficient institutionalization of proper deliberations. The lack of
Democratic Quality in international governance can so far hardly be
compensated by weak forms of participation from the side of globally
operating Civil Society Organizations.
(2) Depending on the domains in need of political regulation, political
deliberation and decision-making faces different types of problems. From a
logical point of view, complex political issues can be analysed in terms of
empirical, evaluative and normative components. Political deliberation shifts
correspondingly over a broad range of aspects, from factual or pragmatic
discourse to ethical, moral or legal argumentation, and again from arguing
to bargaining, that is to the negotiation of power-based interests. If we
understand by arguing any kind of rational discourse, the difference between
bargaining and arguing points to problems that are no longer rooted in a
disagreement on facts, values or norms, that is, in a conflict between opinions,
but in a conflict between particular interests. Bargaining mediates between
conflicting preferences, which allow for compromises, whereas conflicting
value positions, forms of life or identities resist compromising, because
existential meanings escape comparison in terms of basic goods (such as
money, free time, health, social or personal security, etc.).
Political deliberation, broadly understood, thus responds to different issues
with a different logic and mode of communication. Katharina Holzinger
characterizes arguing and bargaining accordingly in terms of speech-act
theory by the choice of different kinds of illocutionary types. She establishes
correlations between types of conflict and modes of communication. Her
beautifully designed comparative study on a local clash between particular
interests and a nationwide conflict between deeply rooted ethical beliefs
confirms the hypothesis. We must not forget, however, that bargaining remains
indirectly linked to argumentation. If the competing parties are to accept
outcomes as fair, they must agree on the conditions of negotiations. And this
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procedural agreement cannot again result from another compromise. In order

to reach a normative consensus on fair procedures participants must first
engage in practical discourse.
(3) If we conceptualize the democratic generation and legitimate use of
power in terms of discourse theory, we arrive at a rather complex image of the
political system as a whole.6 The normative infrastructure of the constitutional
state is mirrored in terms of channels, filters and transformers of various
communication flows. These flows circulate between the informal networks of
the political public sphere on one side, legislatures, courts and administrative
bodies on the other side. And each of these state powers operates again
according to patterns of deliberation of its own. In this mode, the classical
scheme for the interaction and separation of powers (that ideally make, apply
and implement laws) is realized by an increasingly selective access to different
sorts of reasons so that for different powers some spaces of reasons are
closed and binding, whereas others are left open for further processing. And as
soon as those communication flows (in the public, in parliaments, in courts or
agencies) pass certain institutional sluices (such as general elections, or
legislative, juridical and administrative decisions), there is a change in both, the
mode of communication and the regulatory impact: public influence is
transformed in communicative power, communicative power in juridical
competence or administrative power, and both in the execution of court
decisions or the implementation of programmes.
Robert E. Goodin and Michael Neblo are right to stress the functional
differentiation of discourses, depending on the place deliberation and decisionmaking in each case occupy within the larger context of the political system as
a whole. With this systemic view in mind, we can develop more specific
hypotheses on what kind of results discourse and negotiation are expected to
yield in different settings and in view of different conflicts. Political
deliberation can serve many purposes, for example, the formation of relevant,
instructive and influential opinions in the public sphere, or the generation
of informed votes on competing platforms among citizens (or, from the
complementary perspective of campaigning parties, the mobilization of
support from the electorate), or reasonable decisions on legal programs in
parliament, or the rational choice and effective implementation of policies
within the administration, or legitimate solutions for legal conflicts in court,
etc. We must first specify the purpose of the type of deliberation under
consideration, before we can choose the right mix of methods, the merits and
disadvantages of which John S. Dryzek convincingly discusses.
The main focus of the present volume is on political deliberations in the
narrow sense of democratic opinion and will formation (a) among citizens
within the informal public sphere and (b) among politicians or representatives
within formal settings. Even though the authors are not so much concerned
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with mass communication, and how it generates the agenda setting pressure
of relevant issues and the political influence of conflicting public opinions,
they analyse the public sphere from two perspectives (c) as an arena of
citizens who make up their own mind and (d) as an audience reacting to
political elites.
(a) In the light of the sobering results of research on voters ignorance, all
approaches to deliberative politics seem to miss the point of really existing
democracy from the beginning. All the more important is the evidence from
studies that focus on actual political deliberation among citizens. They reach
from induced reasoning in experimental groups to everyday talk in focus
groups. Fishkins and Luskins research of deliberative polling is designed for
mobilizing capacities of ordinary citizens that most people cannot makes use of
under normal conditions. There is a largely neglected disposition for the
rational appropriation of political information and an information-driven
preference change on the basis of normative criteria. Large-scale democracies
obviously do not take advantage of this potential. The study of everyday
political talk by Pamela Johnston Conover and D. Searing suggests that the
daily routines and interactions foster reasonable political attitudes and
interests among potential voters even within existing institutions and cultural
contexts. This kind of data fit to the image of how individual citizens
cognitively process a more or less inattentively perceived flow of rather
accidental and scattered information over a longer period in such a way that
the constant input piles up to an intuitive knowledge as the tacit background
for still rationally motivated pro and con attitudes towards political issues at
(b) The splendid comparative study of Jurg Steiner, Andre Bachtiger,
Markus Sporndli and Marco R. Steenbergen on the deliberative dimension of
four national legislatures reaches just to the centre of the whole approach to
deliberative politics. Deliberative politics inconspicuously derives its name
from historical ideas of a pre-1848 liberalism that received its inspiration from
what deliberierende Versammlungen the early modern parliaments were
expected to achieve, namely the rationalization of an in-transparent use of
governmental power. I admire the careful research design for testing ambitious
hypotheses as much as I admire the inventive introduction of a Discourse
Quality Index for capturing essential features of proper deliberation. Both
achievements would deserve a detailed commentary, which I cannot provide in
the present context. Nor can I take up the discussion on procedure vs
substance at the principled level, where the controversy depends on the choice
of epistemic vs non-epistemic concepts of truth and rightness.7 At the level of
the actual democratic process, the procedural institutionalization of parliamentary deliberation feeds on the normative substance of the constitutional
frame anyway.8
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Although I do have some reservations about the method for measuring

substantive outcomes (the supposed egalitarian content of 20 decisions of the
German Vermittlungsausschuss9), my main question concerns the general
result, summarized in the first major proposition that power trumps
discourse with regard to substantive outcomes. I have no idea, of course,
whether a sharper distinction between matters of conflicting interests,
admitting only bargaining and compromise, and matters of value conflict,
yielding to principled arguments, would have led to any differentiation of the
thesis. However, apart from that, I would like to ask about the meaning of a
power, which is expressed in terms of parliamentary majority votes.
This power derives from the result of general elections, which is in turn
determined by deliberatively formed opinions opinions shaped by
public controversies and disputes on competing platforms. From a systemic
point of view, the communicative power, stored by majority parties,
shares with the more fluid impact of parliamentary debates on shifting
votes of MPs the same roots of political deliberation. This is why the
finding that the institutionalized power of democratically elected majorities
cannot be easily counteracted by deliberation within either parliament or
parliamentary committees fits as well to the overall view of a discourse
theory of the constitutional state as the other finding, and that egalitarian
arguments did have a measurable impact on egalitarian outcomes in cases of a
(c) Steiner and his group present in their summary the second major
proposition that the large majority of parliamentary debates are not really
deliberative. This fits with some other observations on the interaction of
parliaments with outside audiences and the ambivalent impact of a double
reference of plenary debates to the internal audience and an external addressee.
Katharina Holzinger reports on a prominent occasion where arguments in the
German Bundestag were not exchanged for the purpose of deliberation, but
just used for a nationwide public presentation and legitimation of polarized
positions that had been previously developed and hardened over years of
controversies at various levels. The out-of-window reference to a larger
audience serves the function of mobilizing and securing legitimation for ones
own party and is, normatively speaking, quite in order, even though it lowers
the kind and quality of deliberation. On the other hand, Simone Chambers and
Thomas Risse compare the contrasting effects of publicity in cases, when
political elites either appeal to the supposed impartial authority of a diffuse and
anonymous public at large or try to serve the presumably fixed preferences and
prejudices of a familiar audience. What may promote the sensitivity for a style
of principled reasoning and the common good type of arguments in one case
and seduces at other times to shift towards rhetoric and demagoguery. On the
basis of a review of the relevant literature on manipulative misinformation,
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pandering and image maintaining, Simone Chambers comes up with a

clarifying analysis of private vs public reasoning.
(d) The interaction between political elites and the general public is
intensified during campaign periods. Hanspeter Kriesis exemplary study on
political participation in referenda highlights the institutional conditions in
which argument-based voting is reinforced. This Swiss experience confirms
the normative expectations we connect with the form of direct democracy. It
intensifies at the same time scepticism about the feasibility of effective
arrangements in large-scale democracies and complex societies, which can
hardly meet the two requirements for deliberative politics, identified by this
research a genuine familiarity with the political project at stake and a high
level of information about the pros and cons of the controversial aspects of it.
How can we hope to meet the doubts of Swiss citizens, who reject to join a
European Union that cannot, by its own operations, meet the conditions it
requires for acceding member states?
I must apologize for the selective perspective of my reading. My evaluation is
guided by a theoretical frame afterwards brought to empirical studies, most of
which have been designed from different points of view. However, the bridging
conception of deliberative politics reminds us of the peculiar feature that all of
these studies have in common. The approach towards one or the other kind of
deliberative practices requires an instrument for the evaluative measurement
of data (like the Discourse Quality Index) or an experimental design for the
construction of value-impregnated data (like the focus groups for deliberative
polling). The evaluation comes in via some notion of communicative or
practical rationality, which extends beyond the familiar conceptions in rational
choice- and game-theory and plays a different role in structuring designs.
Compared with the well-defined standard notion of purposive rationality of
actions and interactions, conceptions of what is rational in communication
(D. Davidson, M. Dummett, R. Brandom, J. Habermas) or reasonable in
practice (J. Rawls, Ch. Taylor, B. Williams) still vary with controversial
theories. Thus, the empirical design to a large extent depends on who
cooperates with whom, or on the choice between philosophical approaches in
both fields, the philosophy of language and normative political theory. For the
case of my own theory, the impact on design and method is easily illustrated by
the following implication. Whereas the observed behaviour of an actor does or
does not fit the paradigm of rational choice, the communicative behaviour of
participants in deliberative practices always fits the paradigm to some degree,
as long as the actor is participating in a practice of that kind. For the rational
presuppositions are attributed to the type of practice, whether it is
institutionalized or not. In this case, the intricate purpose of measurement is
to find out the degree in which a given sample of participants live up to rational
presuppositions that are constitutive of their practice.
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Brandom, R. (1994) Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment,
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dahlberg, L. (2002) Net-public sphere research: beyond the first phase, Euricom colloquium:
electronic networks and democracy; 912 October, 2002, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
Grice, H.P. (1975) Logic and Conversation, in D.D. and G. Harman (eds.) The Logic of Grammar,
Encino, CA: Dickenson.
Grice, H.P. (2001) Aspects of Reason, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Habermas, J. (1983) Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
Habermas, J. (1991) Erlauterungen zur Diskursethik, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
Habermas, J. (1996a) Die Einbeziehung des Andern, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
Habermas, J. (1996c) Between Facts and Norms, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Habermas, J. (1999) Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, Teil III.
Sporndli, M. (2004) Diskurs und Entscheidung. Eine empirische Analyse kommunikativen Handelns
im deutschen Vermittlungsausschuss, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag fur Sozialwissenschaften.
Tyler, T.R. (1990) Why People Obey the Law, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

1 For this research strategy, the work of Michael A. Neblo is representative, too.
2 The so-called voters paradox is an artefact of a theory that reduces by definition all action
orientations to those resulting from rational choice.
3 Tyler (1990).
4 Habermas (1999).
5 Habermas (1996c).
6 Habermas (1996c, Chapter 4).
7 Habermas (1999, Teil III; 1991, 164ff).
8 Habermas (1996c).
9 Sporndli (2004, Kapitel 5, 6 and 9).
10 Sporndli (2004, 161).

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